Listening #26 Page 2

At first, I tried to limit myself to comparing only the Linn Lingo and Naim Armageddon power supplies and changing nothing else. But that proved impossible—not because it couldn't be done in a material sense, but because I just couldn't wrestle the 700-lb gorilla in one corner of the room without at least saying hello to the one in the other: The Linn Ekos ($3000) and Naim Aro ($2750) tonearms, which are as different from one another as can be, and which surely influenced the development of their respective companies' motor drives.

And try as I might, I couldn't escape the pattern that was emerging from all of my listening: At the end of the day—which it isn't, of course—the Linn tonearm and Linn power supply add up to more than the sum of their parts on the LP12 platform. So do the Naim tonearm and Naim power supply, albeit differently.

Heard on its own, so to speak, on an Armageddon'd LP12, the Ekos sounded competent, okay, decently musical—but no more. Heard on a Lingo'd LP12, the Naim Aro was about the same: pretty good. But when I put the Ekos on the Lingo'd Linn, the player opened up into a big-sounding, wildly dynamic, faultlessly tuneful player that held me utterly rapt. Likewise, when I combined the Naim Aro with the Naim Armageddon on the same platform, the player was, again, magical—but different: tuneful, but with more momentum and flow. It sounded smaller and less dramatic, but more natural and organic, and a shade less mechanical.

The Naim Armageddon was easy to listen to. The Linn Lingo was difficult to ignore.

There were hints, even before I began listening—things I observed during the long succession of setups. As I mentioned earlier, the Armageddon board has an electrical ground lead that's meant to connect with the record player's other grounds at a common point. The Lingo board does not—meaning that, when one uses a Naim Aro tonearm on a Lingo-powered LP12, the Aro's separate ground lead can no longer be referenced directly to the incoming AC ground, as its designer intended. Could that account for a difference in audible performance above and beyond that which you might associate with the inherent qualities of the products themselves? I don't see why not.

Another consideration: The Linn Ekos tonearm—not just the armtube but the counterweight, arm rest, and mounting base, as well—is a lot heavier than the Naim Aro. That's obvious during setup, when the lower mass of the Aro forces me to lower the right-rear spring adjustment to a considerable degree. And I can't ignore how differently the suspension bounce appears with one arm, as compared to the other, even when all the many adjustment variables are attended to to the nth degree: Delighted Aro owner though I am, having bought one over a decade ago, to set up an LP12 with both arms is to see that it's truly designed for something closer in mass to the Ekos. The suspension is easier to displace with an Ekos onboard, and readier to move in response to disturbance—but just as fast to regain its composure. Given the choice between disturbing the relationship between stylus and groove, and displacing the suspended components as a unit, even if only temporarily, I'll take the latter any old day.

So again, in comparing just these different arms—forget the power supplies for a moment—I may know what I'm hearing, but I'm not so sure what's causing it. Is it the difference between the designs (unipivot vs captured bearings), the difference between the qualities of the products themselves, or the difference between the frequencies at which the suspension springs are working?

I do know that an LP12 is a little harder to set up with an Aro tonearm than an Ekos—mostly because the Naim's signal cable is so difficult to dress—but that a Lingo power supply is slightly easier to install than an Armageddon. And while setting up an LP12 is no job for the inexperienced, I don't imagine there's any way you could get a dealer to jump through all those hoops for the sake of a comparison.

And the things I heard
The differences were distinct enough to make the effort worthwhile. While I still believe it's difficult to get a bad sound out of a Linn LP12—difficult but not impossible—having now heard all these products at their best, I think it's safe to say that one combination will please a certain sort of listener, while their counterparts will be happy only with a certain other.

The Lingo-Ekos combination sounded more dynamic than the Armageddon-Aro, seeming even to enhance the LP12's innate ability to shrug off steady-state vinyl roar. Leonard Cohen's very-well-recorded voice on "I Tried to Leave You" (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Columbia C 33167) poured from the speakers with unexpected drama, nuance, and presence. It was, in fact, the first song I listened to after my most recent changeover to the all-Linn components, and the noise floor was so low that, a demisecond before the music started, I wondered if maybe I'd forgotten to unmute the preamp. And Martha Argerich's downright ingenious performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (Deutsche Grammophon SLPM 139 349, in a typically excellent Speakers Corner reissue) had greater color and drama with the Lingo-Ekos than the Armageddon-Aro. As with the Cohen track, the music popped out and away from the noise floor in a more captivating, electrifying way, and the subtleties of the indescribable Adagio in particular were more effective for it. With the Lingo driving the Linn's motor, listening to well-made piano recordings such as that and others, I simply heard a more convincing impression of a human touch setting an enormous instrument into acoustical motion.

But for all the stunning realism on tap with the Linn components, the Naim rig had a set of musical strengths that I found equally compelling. It pulled music out of the groove in a more rhythmically nuanced way, and in particular presented lines with more flow—more of a sense of continuum, rather than leaving each note to exist as an isolated event. On the Cohen number, that brought a greater sense of tension and anticipation to the listening experience. And the Armageddon-Aro had a similar effect on Argerich's piano, pulling me along with the unraveling lines and making me feel more involved, physically and emotionally. The thought that's kept popping up in my listening notes all this time: The Naimified LP12 sounded sexier.

I enjoy and appreciate both, for different reasons. And because I'm just as susceptible to marginal influences as anyone else, I can't ignore the fact that, after using the LP12 with the Armageddon and Aro for most of calendar year 2004, my current Lingo-Ekos setup sounds different and fun. I'm enjoying all my favorite music as much as ever—just differently. And sexy though the Naims may be, I can't deny the sheer carnal pleasure of playing my old 45rpm singles whenever I want to. Have you listened to the John Lennon's "Instant Karma" lately—the original single that says "PLAY LOUD" on the label? I haven't missed a morning for almost two weeks, and I have no intention of stopping.

Still there'll be more
Beyond all that, I'm not sure how to advise the record lover who's choosing between the two. I can live happy as a clam with either. In fact, I have.

There are two more things I need to get off my chest before I stop yammering about LP12 setups. First, I keep hearing this little voice in the back of my head—not the one that's picking up stray transmissions from the President's suit jacket, but the one that says, There's no way a Naim Armageddon can perform in the US quite as well as it can in the UK.

Here's the reason: All other things being equal, a small motor pulley is more susceptible to run-out error than a large one. The 50Hz pulley can be machined with greater precision, meaning that a 50Hz Linn motor will probably drive the platter more smoothly. An Armageddon works perfectly well with that motor in the UK—which is, after all, what it was designed to do—but not in the US. Consequently, I wouldn't be surprised if American audiophiles, me included, have never really heard a Naim Armageddon at its best.

Second, the waters have now been muddied further by Linn's brand new T Kable for the Ekos. It's not so much a function of the T Kable's ultrapure-copper conductors themselves—although I'm sure they're nice in their own right—but rather that the new cable comes with a brand-new type of P-clip (called the P Klip) and clamp (called—get ready for it—the Klamp).

Anyone who's set up an LP12 will tell you what a royal pain in the ass it is to clamp off the tonearm cable so that it neither fouls the suspension nor allows vibrational energy to escape the subchassis "loop." The new design eases the chore considerably. Anyone who's ever injured himself or his LP12 while tightening the old clip with a flat-bladed screwdriver wedged up against that damn oversized washer will appreciate that that step is no longer required.

I installed my new T Kable just a few days ago, and it made a subtle but worthwhile improvement in smoothness and detail. Or at least I think it did: The improvement might also have been caused by the Klamp. Or the Klip. Or the smaller washer. Or the fresh setup. Or something else.